The constant drizzle outside the canvas tent matched the somber mood inside James Bradley’s heart. War isn’t so great, he mused, even when you’re winning.
Tired and aching from the damp cold, the 17-year-old soldier shifted his weight on his bedroll and closed his eyes. At the far end of the small tent he could hear droplets of water splattering into a metal drinking cup–another leak. Between the steady ping and the loud snores of his three tent buddies, James doubted he'd get any sleep before morning–Christmas morning.
His thoughts drifted northward to his parents' home in Upper Michigan, a lifetime away from the military campground in Georgia. He could imagine snow drifting across the small lake where he skated with his friends, blanketing the barn and the cozy white clapboard cottage where he'd lived all of his life before enlisting in the Northern Army and marching south with General William T. Sherman's brigade.
James remembered how proud he had felt in his navy blue woolen uniform as he waved goodbye to his school buddies and his family.
Mama and Granny Owens cried and vowed to pray for him every day. He knew they'd keep their word. Many times he'd seen his mother on her hands and knees, scrubbing the kitchen floor and praying her way through her daily prayer list.
Never one to talk much, Pa looked with envy at his oldest son. Pa would have enlisted too, except for the limp he had gotten after Beulah, the family's horse, stepped into a rabbit hole and threw him against a stone fence. After reminding James of how much he was loved, his father had thumped him on the back and said in a broken voice, "Whatever you do, be God's soldier, son."
Then came the hundreds of miles of marching, the boring Army meals of porridge, bean soup, and dried bread (the thought of Mama's biscuits baking in the oven brought a brief smile to his face), the never-to-be-forgotten stench of gunpowder, the deafening explosions, and always the blood of the dying. How could anyone be God's soldier in such a war?
Nothing had prepared him for the first time he looked into the face of a fatally wounded, terrified prisoner of war, no older than himself. James brushed a shock of blond hair from the rebel soldier's bloody face and wondered, Who's at home praying for you?
During the day, when he was caring for the captain's business, he could stuff away such thoughts. But at night, in the solitude of darkness, James squeezed his eyes tightly to blot out the ugliness.
"Rain! I hate rain!" He gritted his teeth, steeling himself against a powerful wave of emotion threatening to spill out onto his makeshift pillow. A grunt and a snort from Jeffrey Pinter, his nearest tentmate, reinforced his resolve not to cry.
Early in his military career James had impressed his captain with his organizational abilities.
"Son," the captain called to him from across the mess tent one day, "I need someone to assist me with my papers. I think you're the man."
"Yes, sir," the youth replied proudly. He took to the job instantly, and the benefits.
It was James's task to assemble an inventory list for his unit of the booty following the sacking of Savannah, Georgia. Potatoes, pigs, cows, chickens, eggs, blankets, shotguns, ammunition . . . The list tumbled through his mind, and with it the faces of the Army's victims: sickly women, starving children, and saddened grandpas too old to fight for their homes and belongings.
General Sherman had called the taking of Savannah his Christmas gift to Abraham Lincoln. To win battles was perhaps noble, but to steal food out of the mouths of old women and small children? Even knowing that his own Army's food stock was low, James wasn't so sure. It didn't take much to imagine how sparse Christmas meals would be in the tiny, one-room cabins they'd ransacked after they leveled Atlanta.
"Thieves!" a young woman shouted as the soldiers loaded her belongings onto her farm wagon, pulled by her only horse.
"Shame on you!" An old man shook his cane defiantly as the soldiers stripped his cabin of food and supplies.
"Don't take Scrappy!" a small girl cried as a soldier walked away from one particularly poor cabin, holding the family's pet rooster by its legs.
James tried to forget the hungry faces of terrified children pressed against their mothers as the soldiers plundered their homes and farms. One woman looked so much like Mama, he thought. And the defiant young girl with blond hair the color of corn silk, was she cold? Was she hungry?
James shivered from the damp cold and burrowed deeper into his bedding. "Lord, I know it's bad for so many people," he prayed, "but what can I do? I'm just an Army private." The young soldier drifted off to sleep minutes before daybreak and awoke with a radical idea.
It was difficult, but James waited until the captain finished his breakfast before he began. "We could load the wagons with food, sir. We can't eat all the food we've collected." He breathed a quick prayer and continued, "We could tie tree twigs to the mules' heads like the antlers of reindeer . . ." The ideas tumbled unchecked from his mouth as he shared his plan with the captain.
The captain shook his head in amazement. The plan was ludicrous–Christmas or not. James continued to bombard the captain with ideas.
"Private Bradley, you amaze me. I don't know what to say." The captain touched his lips with his index fingers. "I too feel guilty for leaving so many people cold and hungry, especially at Christmas. I argued that that's war, but those little tykes . . . They haunt you, don't they?"
"Yes, sir, they do."
"All right." The officer pursed his lips. "I don't know what my superiors will say, but make it happen, son."
"Yes, sir!" The young soldier snapped off a crisp salute. "Right away, sir!"
Surprise and gratitude filled the gaunt faces of hundreds of hungry old men, women, and children when Yankee wagons rolled through the countryside, hauled by Army mules. Strapped to the sides of each mule's head were tree twigs, resembling reindeer's antlers. And 90 homesick Yankee soldiers voluntarily drove the wagons and spent their Christmas delivering food, wool blankets, and firewood to hungry children, women, and old men.
As Christmas night drew to a close, an exhausted James dropped onto his bedroll and instantly fell asleep. For the first time since leaving home, he knew he'd been more than one of General Sherman's foot soldiers. He'd been God's soldier on a mission to give life instead of taking it.
Kay D. rizzo